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Photograph by Timothy Treadwell

What's Your Ursine?: Werner Herzog's new documentary brings viewers up close and personal with nature red in claw and tooth.

The Bear Whisperer

Werner Herzog analyzes a fellow filmmaker's ursine love and folly in 'Grizzly Man'

By Richard von Busack

IN OCTOBER 2003, an Alaskan grizzly bear killed and ate nature filmmaker Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. The documentary Grizzly Man, by Werner Herzog, investigates the story. Although he had spent 13 summers photographing the bears, Treadwell was an unlikely wilderness trekker: an Andy Dick–like, beardless, blond-haired chatterbox with a lisp. Still, he had the bravery and persistence to get close to the bears. Treadwell's footage is surprisingly intimate. He was a born anthropomorphizer, naming his bears things like "Mr. Chocolate." Though he always had the camera in the right place, there are times when you wonder if he was so close that his familiarity bred contempt. He films a snarling, gouging, shit-smeared combat between two male grizzlies. After the loser is lying in an exhausted heap, Treadwell goes over to cheer him up. He must have thought he was Burgess Meredith in Rocky.

Unlike Treadwell, Herzog understands the weight of what he is watching. "I have seen this madness before, on a film set," he says in his lilting, toneless English. Treadwell's camera also serves as his diary; we see his lapses into paranoia and delusions of grandeur, hear of his problems with drinking. He misinterprets greetings left by hikers as direct threats to him. His ecstasies are hard to comprehend: he is rapt over a pile of bear poop, touching the scat to have physical contact with the beasts he dares not touch. This excessive behavior made Treadwell hated. Too-profound admiration of wild animals is often misunderstood as a kind of bestiality or, worse, idolatry. An Aleutian native explains that Indians would see Treadwell's fixation as a kind of disrespect, also.

Akira Kurosawa had a maxim: An artist never turns his face away. Yet there are times where one must, if only to preserve the fragility of the imagination. Herzog's handling of the videotape of the death of Treadwell and Huguenard is an act of intelligent discretion, contrasted against a culture where we expect to hear every scream. Choosing not to make a snuff film, Herzog shows his own humanity. The new trend in documentaries is to cook them for mass consumption, give them clear hero/villain struggles and a soundtrack of hits. Herzog's old-school approach is as detached and eloquent as the improvised soundtrack by Richard Thompson and Jim O'Rourke of Sonic Youth. Grizzly Man has an investigator's dispassionateness, which never conceals Herzog's depth of feeling. Wise, yet spare, this is the most moving documentary of the year.

And still, Herzog's conclusions prove once again how humans project themselves onto the blank screen of nature. Treadwell thought he was a guest at the teddy bears' picnic. Looking into the blank gaze of a bear, Herzog tells us he sees only the malignity and chaos of nature. But Herzog was also the man who thought he heard the birds in the treetops screaming in agony, as seen in Burden of Dreams, Les Blank's documentary about the making of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. Actually, there is a brutal system in the way life on the Kodiak Islands regulates itself, even if that system was thrown temporarily out of balance by the passion and folly of Timothy Treadwell.

Grizzly Man (R, 103 minutes), a documentary by Werner Herzog, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the August 10-16, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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